Supporting creative work by women
Suzannah Herbert and Lauren Belfer‘s (pictured left) award-winning documentary WRESTLE follows four members of a high-school wrestling team in Huntsville, Alabama as they battle for the state championships and deal with significant personal hardships. The film, a New York Times Critic’s Pick, plays Village East Cinema in New York City for one week starting February 22nd. WRESTLE has played festivals across the country and picked up numerous awards for its beautiful and moving storytelling.
Suzannah and Lauren spoke with Works by Women about culling the over 650 hours of footage they shot, the joys and challenges of making WRESTLE and their current favorite podcasts.
WORKS BY WOMEN: Tell me about filming WRESTLE. What were some of the joys and challenges?
SUZANNAH HERBERT & LAUREN BELFER: The main joy was getting to know all the wrestlers and their families. We made the decision early on to live in Huntsville full time while filming. Parachuting in and out of their lives wasn’t an option if we were asking the team for their trust. It was essential to our process that we be there for every tournament, every achievement, every heartbreak. For us, it was also about investing our own time, not just as filmmakers, but as individuals. Getting to know each of the wrestlers, seeing them every day, and spending time together off-camera allowed us all to build relationships that are real and will be long-lasting. But the film’s intimacy is really a testament to the wrestlers, their families, and their coaches, who courageously let us into their lives and trusted that telling their stories could have wide-reaching significance.
An obstacle we faced early on was how to capture the wrestling. Our amazing cinematographer, Sinisa Kukic, thought a lot about how to most effectively capture the sport. He watched various dance and sports movies in his process of developing the look. He realized that the lens needed to be at eye level with the wrestlers in order to really capture the intensity, movement, and flow of the wrestling matches. Sinisa beautifully captured the physicality and viscerality of the sport, leaving audiences on the edges of their seats while watching the matches in WRESTLE unfold.
Initially, finding support as new filmmakers was challenging. Though we believed strongly in the wrestling team’s story, and put together a compelling sizzle reel to help pitch it, it was hard to convince people to believe in first-time filmmakers. We were so lucky to have executive producer Micheline Levine by our side, who connected us to Steven Klein of Firefly Theater & Films and Seth Gordon of Exhibit A, both of whom saw the promise in the film and really believed in us as new filmmakers.
WBW: You had hundreds of hours of footage. What was your editing process like? How many different films did you make/create out of the footage before this finished version?
SH: 650 hours of footage is extremely daunting. Especially after having just lived it all as well. While filming, I kept a daily journal of each day we shot. I typed it up each morning, detailing the previous days events on and off camera. This really helped us organize our focus on which days to start watching first. We brought on an amazing Associate Editor, Blair McClendon, who spent hours watching the original material and creating markers with notes throughout. Lauren and I spent around two years on and off editing and watching the less obvious scenes to find the nuance and subtle moments in the footage. We had many solid cuts before Pablo Proenza (editor and co-writer) came on and helped us bring the film to the next level. He harnessed the nuance in a very effective way while also elevating the wrestling so when audiences watch, they are literally gasping at every move.
WBW: What was it like showing the film in Alabama? What was that experience like?
SH: The whole team and their families first saw the film at the San Francisco International Film Festival at our world premiere. We were so nervous before showing it to them, but honestly, we couldn’t have asked for a better response from them: they all love it. There were laughs, cheers, and tears throughout. Jamario was speechless when first asked in our Q&A, and after a few moments told the packed house, “It’s just beautiful.” It means so much to us to know they’re proud of the film.
WBW: Suzannah, you grew up in Memphis. How does that city inform your work? And, Lauren how does place inform your work?
SH: Memphis is a special place. Many parts of Memphis are segregated, but living in midtown/downtown area, you go school and work with people from all different backgrounds and circumstances. I am grateful I didn’t grow up in the bubble of my own middle class life. I learned and played on dozen of sports teams with people who were different than me. I think this made me realize my own privilege early in life which ultimately informs my work and what’s important to me in fighting more and questioning. As I’ve gotten older I’ve realized that in the South, the history of our country is palpable. There’s a tragic entanglement between the present and our country’s painful history. The battle to define equality and freedom first started in the South, and it is still being waged there today and really in all of America. I really hope to explore these issues and struggles through my work.
LB: I’m from Southern California, but not from a film family or anything like that. Hollywood was a short drive from where I grew up in the Valley, but it was like Disneyland to me, a fun fantasy, so it wasn’t a particular influence on my wanting to make movies, especially since I’m so drawn to docs. What I really benefited from, but also took for granted, was the diversity of my friends growing up. The LA area doesn’t get adequate recognition for being the melting pot that it is. Sure, there were a ton of people that looked and acted like the cast of 90210, but that wasn’t my crowd. I had friends of different religions, different cultures, friends whose parents were immigrants, and friends who were immigrants themselves. It wasn’t until college that I realized that wasn’t everyone’s experience, that most people grow up in more homogenous communities. Growing up in such a diverse environment instilled in me from a young age a desire to get to know people, and to seek out stories. I’ve never stopped asking questions or wanting to try new things, which inspires a lot of my work.
WBW: What inspired you to be a filmmaker? What keeps you going?
SH: Whenever someone asks me that, I always have a different answer, which I guess points to the fact that it’s many things, people, and moments that worked together to push me to become a documentary filmmaker. First my parents – my dad is an abstract painter and my mom has worked in the arts for decades. They never pushed me into being an artist, but it was their drive, creative force, love of art, and many artists they exposed me to that allowed me to imagine this path. I know I’m lucky to grow up that way. In terms of what keeps me going….screening the film across the country to such different audiences has been really rewarding. To see and hear how moved people are by the film and then the conversations it sparks after definitely helps keep me going. Like mosts artists, we want our film to make a difference, challenge viewers, and open minds, and so far it has.
LB: I always loved movies, but actually making them professionally didn’t always feel like a tangible goal. I staged small plays as a kid, but wasn’t one of those young Spielberg types, and similarly when I went to college it was to study films, not make them. After graduation, I became a community organizer and worked at one of the settlement houses on New York’s Lower East Side. But the more community organizing I did, the more I wanted to make a bigger impact and reach a wider audience. Going door to door is exhausting work, and it by definition never ends. I’d find myself brainstorming all these creative ways to communicate our messages to and share the potent stories of the people and families we were working so hard to help, and slowly started to realize that it was those stories I was most interested in and wanted to focus on it full time.
Image from WRESTLE
WBW: What podcast, book or show you’d recommend right now? Why?
SH: I love all of Jesmyn Ward’s writing. Salvage the Bones and Sing, Unburied, Sing are my favorites. She writes about the South and her characters in such a beautiful, deeply thoughtful way. I really enjoy the podcast: Gravy. It is all about the changing American South through food. It’s an interesting approach that reveals the most amazing stories about humanity, place, family, and history.
LB: I’m finally digging into season three of Serial, and wow – what an achievement. It’s so difficult to capture the injustice and tedium of government bureaucracy our criminal courts system, but they weave such an impeccably infuriating tale. It should be required listening for every American. I also just drove through California’s Central Valley and was inspired to dig back into The Grapes Of Wrath.
WBW: What’s next for you? What are you working on?
SH & LB: We are definitely working on researching and developing our next film. It’s too early to say yet what it is, but it’s good.
See WRESTLE in New York City February 22 through 28 at Village East Cinemas. Get your tickets HERE.